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In California, a ‘Herculean Effort’ to Boost Completion

By Reyna Gobel

Statewide network of 112 community colleges vows to raise completion rates (graduation and transfer) by 15 percentage points over next 10 freshmen classes.

Getting one community college to change course is tough. Getting 112 of them to commit to 22 different reform recommendations is the stuff of legend.

That’s what’s happening California, where state community colleges chancellor Brice Harris and the presidents and vice chancellors responsible for the state’s vast network of two-year career and technical colleges are undertaking a coordinated effort to increase completion rates (degrees and transfers) by nearly a quarter million (227,247, to be exact) over the next 10 entering freshman classes.

Speaking to a group of reporters and community stakeholders in late August, Harris described the statewide effort, commonly called the Student Success Initiative, as “Herculean” and said bold changes were underway across the state to satisfy shifting economic demands.

What is the Student Success Initiative?

The 22 recommendations were written by a taskforce created by the California Community Colleges Board of Governors in 2011. Implementation began in January of 2012, with the goal of implementing all 22 recommendations by 2015. The recommendations fall into one of three categories: legislative, board policy, or campus level. One recommendation is to draft a statewide assessment for reading and math, with results being scored the same across all campuses. The goal is threefold: ensure that transfer students don’t have to retake placement exams, enable high schools to administer the tests early, and more accurately determine which students need remedial coursework before they enroll in college.

A similar approach is being used in North Carolina as part of the state’s SuccessNC initiative.

Priority course registration is offered to students who complete orientation, take a placement assessment and meet with academic advisers to hash out an individualized completion plan. Students can maintain their priority registration status by agreeing to periodically meet with academic advisers throughout the semester. The number of advising appointments is determined by major course of study and overall academic goals.

In addition to reviewing placement scores, academic counselors review high school transcripts and talk to students about their abilities and goals. If a student is close on an assessment, these conversations and additional resources might determine what level of coursework the student is prepared to take.

The state will set broad policy recommendations and outlines, but program administrators say it’s up to the individual systems and colleges to set local goals.

Is your state considering a broader completion agenda? Harris offers the following tips for administrators working to enact new policies on campus.

1. You never get everything right the first time. These initiatives are easy to talk about, but much more difficult to implement. Be prepared to tweak the program as you go.

2. Don’t reinvent the wheel. Look at what is out there. Plenty of states — North Carolina and California, to name two — are engaged in this work. Figure out what initiatives you can borrow from other states and programs and encourage individual campuses to make decisions based on the needs of their students.

3. Preparation is key to community college success. Colleges must work with high schools to align coursework with future learning objectives.

4. Communicate. The college, or college system, needs to work with students individually, helping them address specific needs, career and academic goals, and knowledge requirements.

5. Stay focused. Plan ahead and ensure you stick to that plan. Even if certain pieces of the program change along the way, the goal is still the same. Remember that.

Reyna Gobel

is a contributor to the 21st-Century Center.

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